Your Foreskin For The Hammer!
The real story of Hanukah
Published December 3, 1999 in Scope

Tis the season to be Jewish. Hanukah starts tomorrow, a full three weeks ahead of Xmas, but at least there's one respect in which Jews and Christians are eminently similar: Our Sunday school teachers are sleek masters of propaganda and lies. The real Hanukah is about as kosher as a HoneyBaked ham: There's no oil, there's gallons of blood, and the heroes are borderline psychopaths... and then there's the whole "forced circumcision" issue.

See also...
... by D. R.
... in the Scope section
... from December 3, 1999

The Hanukah story that we learned as kids went something like this: Once upon a time there was a mean king (or people or, uh... somebody) who didn't like Jews. He was (or, um, they were) very bad indeed. But the brave, brave Maccabees fought back and won against the amorphous, deed-less, nameless mean guys. And then they were in the Temple and there was only enough lamp oil to last them one night, but they lit it and it lasted for eight whole days -- thus, the miracle of Hanukah. So let's all sing about magic lights and play gambling games and eat fried potato pancakes. Who's got the sour cream?

But it ain't that simple. Don't get me wrong; I am a bigger Jew than you, dear reader, will ever know... but history's history, and it ain't all burning shrubbery and benedictions.

It all started when that big homo Alexander the Great saw, conquered, and came all over Palestine in 332 B.C.E. He brought with him Hellenism -- the idea that, whatever your tribal background, anyone could be a sophisticated man-about-town. Instead of being a drab, backwater "Moabite," "Babylonian," or "Jew," Joe Average could talk philosophy, wear laurels, and drink cosmopolitans; he could be Hellenized.

Maccabees v. Wannabes

Of course, if you're spending all your time hanging out with the boys at the gymnasium, you don't work so hard on your home religion. So tensions developed between the nouveau Greeks and those who thought that Hellenism was a load of colonialist, imperialist bullshit designed to make them sell out their roots and buy SUVs. "Fight the power!" the old school Jews grumbled.

Fast-forward to 175 B.C.E. Alexander's successor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, takes the throne. Things go to hell over the office of the High Priest; it's the holiest of Jewish positions, and is supposed to be handed down through blood lineage, like a monarchy. But this guy Jason buys the seat off the king and promises to Hellenize everybody. Of course, he gets kicked out, but an even worse schmuck comes in. Then the Jews boot the second guy and, for some reason, Antiochus gets paranoid. Convinced that there's a conspiracy afoot, he slaughters a whole lot of people and desecrates the sacred Jewish Temple.

This is where the Sunday school teachers come in; Antiochus really is an asshole. He orders the Jews to do all sorts of bad shit, like eat pork, violate the Sabbath, and worship icky gods, and all sorts of carnage goes down. "According to the decree," it says in I Maccabees (an apocryphal book of the Hebrew Bible), "they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the children from their mothers' necks" (I Mac 1:60-61).

As those acquainted with the story of Herod killing the innocents know, dead babies usually signal that shit's going down. Israel becomes a comply-or-die state; the moderate, Greek-freakin' Jews kiss major ass to stay alive. The punk-rock anti-establishment Jews, on the other hand, decide that it's now or never for their 2,000-year-old tradition, and they start to work it on the hara-kiri tip. They're against the Greeks, sure, but they're really set off by the sight of other Jews kowtowing to The Man. The PR people really hate this part: Hanukah's really a Jew-on-Jew civil war.

So this guy Mattathyah bar Hasmon kills another Jew as he's making a pig sacrifice, (I Mac 2:23) and then a small handful of ultra-Orthodox right-wing zealots -- the ones that get called reactionary fundies nowadays -- run for the hills and start... well, guerrilla warfare, basically. It's a violent revolt, old-style -- lead by Mattathyah's son, Judah, who was such a bad motherfucker that they called him "the Maccabee" -- the Hammer.

Please, Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em

Originally, before all that oil-lamp hoo-hah, the great miracle of Hanukah is this: against all odds, against big fancy Greek battle gear and a hefty army, the Hasmonean boys kicked ass and got the Temple back. Why'd they celebrate for eight days (I Mac 4:56)? Because (note the subtle irony) that's how long the Greeks celebrated military victories.

But that wasn't enough. As a nationalist movement fighting against the death of their people, it ain't surprising that they were a little defensive about their power base. And, probably, their dumbass testosterone levels were off the charts. Whatever the reason, once Israel was reclaimed and the Temple restored, Judah and his brothers set to making a Mighty Hebrew Nation, Schwarzenegger-style.

First they hit the non-Jews on their own turf: "they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel" (I Mac 2:46). Yes, you read that right; they forcibly chopped the end-bit off of grown men's weenies as a way of Juda-izing them. Then they went off into the great gentile yonder to raise some Cain.

In a move reminiscent of American activity in Vietnam, Judah took a Gentile-filled town "and killed every male by the edge of his sword, then he seized all its spoils and burned it with fire" (I Mac 5:28). He then did the same thing to the innocent people in Maapha, Chaspho, Maked, Bosor, other towns in the region of Gilead, Hebron, Marisa, Azotus, and other quaint locales in the land of the Philistines. One typical Maccabean My Lai happened when the army ran into their old enemy, the sons of Jambri:

"They raised their eyes and looked, and saw a tumultuous procession with much baggage; and the bridegroom came out with his friends and his brothers to meet them with tambourines and musicians and many weapons. Then they rushed upon them from the ambush and began killing them. Many were wounded and fell, and the rest fled to the mountain; and they took all their goods. Thus the wedding was turned into mourning and the voice of their musicians into a funeral dirge" (I Mac 9:39-41).

The Moral of the Story

So, to check the scorecard: Antiochus was an asshole hell-bent on punishment and power. The Hellenized Jews sold out their people and traditions, first to be cool and then later to save their own sorry asses -- aiding and abetting the desecration of their culture, perhaps irrevocably. The Hasmoneans were radical fundamentalists who we hail as brave counterculture heroes -- so maybe American Jews should quit treating their ultra-Orthodox brethren like shit. Let's see some respect for the black-hats!

But what about the oil? There's no mention of the unsaturated miracle in any of the war's contemporary accounts; the first reference to the happier version of the story is 300 or 400 years later, when the Jews were living, poorly treated, under Roman rule. The rabbis writing the Talmud weren't stupid, and didn't figure that the Romans'd be too thrilled if they celebrated a holiday about violent revolt against a big foreign government. So in the Talmudic discussion of Hanukah, they made up some shit about lights in the darkness -- which conveniently meshed with the Roman pagan traditions around them. Yeah, lights. Wink wink. Sure.

So what's the lesson here? Hanukah's an ideological mess in which the good guys are jerks and the bad guys are jerks and the Jewish tradition continued, but lots of people died, so it's just the same as everybody else's mucky history. The war did save the Jewish tradition from ethnic cleansing and that's good, 'cause without that, we'd all be sacrificing pigs to the Great God Olympus, and you'd never get to watch Charlotte's Web or Babe: Pig in the City. Plus, little Jewish kids all over the world get to gorge themselves on tinfoil-wrapped chocolates and become pint-sized fire hazards for eight days of Menorah.

Happy Holidays, everyone. May your hammers be strong and your circumcisions be voluntary.

D. R. is a Nice Jewish Girl, despite her history.